Besides birding, I am into walking and exploring the countryside and the diverse landscapes that we have in our Region. Over the years my excursions have taken me to some very beautiful places and it is always a pleasure to share this with others. So, with this is in mind, my wife and I thought it would be a good idea to lead a walk in the Regional Park of Cabo Cope for the WARM walking group. We already had a pretty good idea of the route, but thought it would be better to do a recce before Christmas, just to check it out. Birding and walking are quite complimentary, as long as your walking partner shares the same interest or has infinite patience to enjoy the numerous en-route birding stops. Luckily, Jessica is endowed with both qualities, just as well really!
So, armed with binoculars, we started our route by the side of La Torre de Cope built upon the instruction of Charles the 1st of Spain in 1539 (also known as Charles the 5th, the Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria). Originally, the tower was manned by 3 or 4 people to watch for North African Corsairs and Berber pirates that were continuously raiding along the Murcian coastline during that era. The Tower was restored in the 1990s and now appears to be a formidable defensive redoubt.
From the tower we walked directly along the rocky shoreline with the waves lapping alongside. This first section is an area of fossilised dunes and the walking is quite slow as you pick your way across the undulating rocky terrain. As we progressed there were quite a few waders sharing our route looking for tasty titbits either amongst the rocky cavities or on the rock ledges left by the lapping waves. On closer inspection I could see that most of them were Turnstones (Arenaria interpres) searching the crevices very slowly for insects and small crustaceans. There were also a few Kentish plovers (Charadrius Alexandrines) running up and down excitedly dodging the waves as they looked for seaborne food parcels.
I have mentioned Turnstones in previous articles as they are quite common along our stony and rocky shorelines. They can be very long-distance migrants, some travelling as far South as Australia after breeding in the Arctic. Our birds head North to breed in the Arctic during Summer and hence they are Winter visitors in Murcia.
The Kentish plover is a fairly common resident of the shorelines and quite a small bird, about the size of a sparrow or very slightly bigger. It breeds in open sandy or shingle areas, laying its eggs in a scrape in the ground. This makes them, their eggs and chicks, very vulnerable to disturbance by people and animals. Dogs are probably their biggest danger so if you are in the habit of walking your dog along the beach (where it is allowed), please keep them on a lead during the Spring and early Summer breeding season. Although, relatively common, the Kentish plover population is in decline because of disturbance during the nesting season. It is a pity that open sandy beaches are also such an attractive habitat for Homo sapiens.
Once past the fossilised dunes, we joined a wide dirt track that runs parallel with the shoreline, and were able to make better progress on our route as we started walking at a normal pace. However, I continued to scan the margins for any birdlife. As we approached the beach of La Galera there were quite a lot of gulls and terns loafing on the exposed rocks. There are several exposed rocky platforms a couple of hundred metres offshore and it is a regular place in winter for the birds to rest without too much disturbance.
On the rocks nearest the beach were a group of up to 30 Sandwich terns (Sterna sandvicensis). They are one of our largest terns, at least amongst the species commonly seen here, and are really Summer visitors. However, with our climate we are lucky to be able to see small numbers of these elegant birds all year round, that over-winter in the Mediterranean. Many of them will spend the Winter in areas of the Caspian and Black seas, Western and Southern Africa. So, if you can catch enough fish in the sea off Cabo Cope during the Winter, it sure as hell beats flying to more distant places.
On the rocks a bit further out were quite a number of largish gulls; and there were certainly some of the very common Yellow-legged gulls (Larus michahellis) but the majority of them were Audouin’s gulls (Larus audouinii). With a population of about 2,000 individuals, this latter species was considered the rarest gull in the world back in the 1960s. Its only breeding areas were a few scattered sites around the Mediterranean basin both in Europe and Africa. Since those days, it has established a very successful breeding colony in the Ebro delta in North-East Spain. From here the population has grown incredibly well and they have now established new breeding colonies around the Spanish coastline, and even in Murcia at San Pedro del Pinatar.
Our walk continued onto Cala Blanca, a beautiful horseshoe-shaped bay with some very picturesque cliffs on the Eastern side. There are old fishermen’s cave houses built into the rock face just 20 – 30 metres from the sea. It really is an interesting place to visit, especially in Spring when all the birds nest in cavities in the cliffs. On this more recent occasion however, the only birds that caught my attention were the Rock doves (Columba Livia).
They look very like domestic or racing pigeons and pure Rock doves have interbred with their domestic cousins for years. So nowadays it is very difficult to identify them with any certainty. I would like to think that these birds, breeding in a more remote and natural cliff environment, are going to be as pure bred as you can find nowadays.
On the way back to La Torre, we didn’t see many ornithological delights, although we did see some more common residents of the Regional Park with Iberian grey shrike (Lanius meridionals) putting in an appearance, along with over-wintering Meadow pipits (Anthus pratensis) and quite a number of Greenfinches (Chloris chloris). Greenfinches have become quite uncommon in recent years, but they seem to be thriving at some of our coastal areas, such as here and around the dunes of San Pedro del Pinatar.
All in all, we enjoyed a great walk in beautiful countryside and it is somewhere I would recommend you visit if you get the opportunity.
A week later we headed off in the opposite direction to the outer limits of the regional boundaries in the North-East, to Monte Arabí in the area of Yecla. My good friend Juan García Lopéz had invited us to join him and his friend José Vicente (a local amateur naturalist and photographer) to visit there. How could we refuse a tour with our own personal expert guide? The mountain of Monte Arabí stands out in the middle of the steppes of Yecla and the nearby plains of Castilla La Mancha. It is a fascinating place with strange eroded rock faces, pre-historic cave art, rock carvings from 2,000 years before Christ and the remains of a bronze age settlement. However, the part that made a lasting impression on me was undoubtably entering the cave of “La Horadada”, which is almost cathedral like. Its size is brought into perspective in the photograph as you can only just see Jessica and José Vicente towards the top of the cave.
As the birding was poor at Monte Arabí, we decided to head to the nearby plains of Pétrola a short trip across the Regional border. With the wind gusting at up to 40km per hour, temperatures at just above freezing and at times hail storms sweeping across the desolate landscape the weather was foul. It was bloody freezing, but it did give a real atmosphere to the place, especially when we came across more than 200 Common cranes (Grus Grus) feeding in the fields. Although we hadn’t disturbed them it wasn’t long before they took off and flew low over our car trumpeting loudly to each other. It was the first time that Juan had seen cranes in the wild and I swear he was quite emotional with the experience of seeing and hearing them so close.
Common (also known as Eurasian) cranes have a wingspan of up to 2.4m and stand up to 1.3m tall. They breed in Northern Europe across the Palearctic to Siberia, but in Winter thousands of them come to Central and Northern Spain. In fact, a recent census recorded a total of just over 245,000 birds overwintering here. They don’t normally come as far south as Murcia, but we do see occasional small family groups that stay for a few days. Such wonderful and emblematic birds gave us a really memorable ending to our day at Monte Arabí and Pétrola!
If you are ever in the Yecla area please spare a bit of time to visit Monte Arabí, you won’t be disappointed.
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